Always Been a Rambler (Arhoolie, NR)

dvd_rambler.jpg The strong point of this video is the music.







One of the oddest periods in American popular music may be the folk revival. In the 1950s and early 1960s, American cities were full of nice, middle-class kids playing guitars and singing about the hard times of dirt farmers and coal miners. Among the various offshoots of this movement were sweet-voiced harmony groups like the Kingston Trio and the Highwaymen, singer-songwriters like Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan, and lots of people playing fiddles and banjos in string bands.

Always Been a Rambler, a documentary by Yasha Aginsky, presents a history of The New Lost City Ramblers, one of the most popular and longest-lasting of the many string bands which came out of that period. The Ramblers (originally John Cohen, Mike Seeger and Tom Paley; Paley was later replaced by Tracy Schwarz) specialize in rural Southern music performed in a traditional style. Their particular genius was to come up with a version of this music which was reasonably true to the spirit of the original while also cleaned up and packaged so it would be palatable to a middle-class urban audience. And, to their credit, the Ramblers were good musicians and serious students of the style who gathered much of their material from field recordings or direct from the source on visits to the South.

The strong point of this video is the music. It includes some great archival clips and recordings, as well as more recent performances. Many notable musicians besides the Ramblers also appear, including Ricky Skaggs, Pete Seeger (half-brother of Mike Seeger), Dewey Balfa, Doc Watson and David Grisman. And from the younger generation, we hear brief performances from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Patrick Sauber and Rayna Gellert, Sammy Lind and Caleb Klauder and the Stairwell Sisters, among others.

On the down side, the video is saddled with a fatuous narration which is entirely unnecessary. If the music can’t speak for itself, you won’t get enough background from the glib generalities offered here ("The old-time music of the New Lost City Ramblers has deep roots. It’s an expression of the way Americans lived when most of them lived on the farm.") to make any difference. And it sometimes seems to be suffering from an identity crisis: Is it presenting the history of one band, or the whole folk revival which still continues today? At 58 minutes, it certainly does not have time to do both.

Further information about Always Been a Rambler is available from the Arhoolie Foundation and the DVD’s website . The DVD includes two extras. The first is a 24-minute color film from 1969 which is perhaps best regarded as an early music video. After some nonsense with the Ramblers scrambling up to a mountain cabin in their city clothes, they play eight tunes, including "Arkansas Traveler" and "In the Pines," and interview an older banjo picker. The second is a black-and-white film of the Ramblers with Tom Paley performing two tunes. Apart from that, the package is quite minimal. There are no internal chapters or song indices, so your only navigational tool is the fast-forward button. | Sarah Boslaugh

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